Updated: Jul 14
Life, death, Bowie, Brent and beyond - nothing is off-limits as Ricky Gervais shares all with Balance
Ricky Gervais is a happy chap. We mean, absolutely in his element. As Balance photographs him at a studio in Old Street on an unusually glorious September morning, the global comedy behemoth is having a blast.
He is a whirling dervish of laughter, energy and positivity. Between the team at Balance, we’ve been fortunate enough to conduct hundreds of interviews and photoshoots, and it doesn’t take a body language expert to be able to tell when someone does – or, indeed, does not – want to be there.
But Ricky is happy. And funny. Oh, boy, is he funny. Effortlessly, room-shakingly, naturally funny.
When Ricky isn’t teasing the photographer for unfavourably comparing him to grizzled, weathered – not to mention dead – TV cop Taggart (the photographer, of course, had done no such thing – Ricky had simply misheard a direction, but you don’t let that get in the way of a good laugh), he’s got everyone in stitches. This will be one of those days where the people present for the shoot will go home and beam how lovely the whole experience was.
LIFE AND DEATH
You could say Ricky is in a good place. And so he should be. He’s currently on the road with Humanity, hands-down his best tour to date. It’s a show that takes in grand themes, such as life, death and the current state of the world, and is packed with terrific observational stand-up, including a delicious bit on friends who share baby photos.
So how has that happened? Being 15 years into comedy, and then banging out your best work?
‘I’ve got old people’s rights,’ reasons the 56-year-old, as we settle into a nearby meeting room for a chat that runs way over our allotted time. ‘I can say what the f**k I like. It’s a bit of a joke; what is true is that because the audience know me so well after 15 years, I can hit the ground running, like friends do. I don’t have to keep nodding and winking and saying “this is irony”. When two friends talk, they don’t say “I’m joking”; “I know you are!”’
Some comedians struggle to stay funny and relatable once they become wealthy. Replace frustration with contentment, and it can be hard to find something to rail against. It’s something Ricky has worked hard to address.
‘I’ve still got to be the fool,’ he explains, and adds: ‘They know I’m richer, or whatever. So I tell them it wasn’t always like that. So people think, f**k me, if that fat c**t can make it, so can I. And I like that. What people don’t realise is that it’s 90 per cent hard work, and luck.’
He adds: ‘What’s great about this show, compared to the others, is that the other shows touched on my interests and what’s funny, whereas this has everything that I’m fascinated in and find important rolled into one. It’s why are we here? What are we doing? Is it getting better or worse? What have we done? We’re all going to die, let’s have a laugh.’
Given the Grim Reaper will tap all of us on the shoulder at some point, you’d think Ricky would just want to sit back and enjoy his millions.
However, when it comes to his voracious work ethic, he says: ‘I asked Bowie why he still did it and he gave me a great reason, which is what I’ve done intuitively and now it is the answer. He said: “To stave off the boredom before I die.” That is the answer!’ He unleashes that trademark Gervais laugh, and adds: ‘Tick!’ More guffaws.
‘All the other things – money, awards, reviews – are nice, but in the same way someone saying “Good morning” is nice.
‘Richard Dawkins said to me, an atheist, that some people get confused – they think there’s no point in living if there’s no after-life. I said I felt the opposite.
So he said: “What’s the reason for you?” I said loads of things: friends, family, meaningful relationships, a decent job, pizza, beer, laughter, worth, all those things. He said: “I agree with all of those things, but I’d add – to understand the world.” Again, tick!
‘We want to know and enjoy as much as we can, and all those things stave off the boredom. We are here for no other reason other than we are. So fill every day to have fun. That’s why people do crosswords – to stave off the boredom before the cab comes. There’s no big picture outside the selfish gene to pass on your DNA. It’s just to have fun and not hurt anyone… I added “not hurt anyone” because someone will go: “To have as much fun as you can? Oh, well, serial killers do that.”
‘Yeah, OK! To have as much fun and not f**king gut someone and keep their organs in a jar! Sorry! My bad! I wasn’t clear enough in my 140 f*cking characters! You have caught me out again, Twitter – I forgot to mention to not skin people alive and wear them as a coat!’ As we say, he’s on form.
‘I always thought I could do anything,’ reveals Ricky, as he contemplates how his childhood infused his attitudes today. ‘I don’t know why I thought that. You pick it up from your parents. My mum was never jealous of the Queen; they never slagged anyone off; you pay your way. I always hold dearly the little adage: ability is a poor man’s wealth.
‘Working for something was always important. It was instilled in me. I got my first job before I went to college – it was a gardening labouring job. I felt proud coming home, because I was doing a job. I knew my family would be proud of that.
‘I’ve always known that success has to come from hard work. If you haven’t worked for it, it’s not a success. In the long run, I felt that good was rewarded.’
It’s well-documented that Ricky dabbled with music at university with band Seona Dancing before becoming an entertainment manager at the University of London Union (ULU). But how, exactly, did success and stardom come about?
As we discover, Ricky is proof positive that you can forge your own path.
Unlike most comedians, he didn’t slog on the circuit for 10 years before catching a break. After university, he worked for ULU, and shares a story about chiding US rockers Pearl Jam for having too many people at an after-show party in 1992, when the band were on their way to global fame.
‘Can you imagine what a boring little jobsworth I came across as? A little f**king ents manager telling Pearl Jam they’re going over the fire limit.’
He then moved to fledging radio station Xfm, after helping them get their licence. As a thank-you, they gave him a job as head of speech – and his own late-night show, which he quit within a week. The Xfm move would prove his ‘golden ticket’ moment.
‘This was a big leap,’ marvels Ricky. ‘I was a 37-year-old ents manager putting on discos and Abba tribute bands. It was like Willy Wonka.’
He would then appear on other Xfm shows to read out events listings: ‘I was so lazy that I couldn’t be bothered to type stuff out and so I went on the radio shows myself.’
Soon, he was developing something of a following: ‘I’d make them laugh. Just because I was too lazy to write. And Xfm started getting emails asking who I was. And that’s where it started. From there, I got a phone call from Channel 4, because they thought I was a comedian. I went along and did that.’ And ‘that’ was The 11 O’Clock Show, the vehicle that catapulted him to cult comedy star.
‘Just think of this: when I took over The 11 O’Clock Show, some people said I shouldn’t do it because I couldn’t take over from Ali G. Imagine if I’d not done it “because I couldn’t take over from Ali G”. That is Britain in a nutshell: “Don’t bother; it won’t happen for you.” I said: “I don’t want to follow Ali G! There’s enough room for two comedians in this world!”’
On a show brimming with edgy comic talent, Gervais is remembered for his outspoken news reporting. However, as he points out, there was nothing that outrageous about him, given everyone on the show was near-the-knuckle.
He adds: ‘They were saying the most horrendous things and I thought, how can I stand out here? So I asked [hosts] Daisy Donovan and Iain Lee to pretend to be offended. So I would say things and they’d go, “You’ve gone too far”. I wasn’t saying anything worse than anyone else on that show, but people said [he mimes typing]: “He’s the most-offensive…” No, I wasn’t. In fact, I had more of a conscience than most. That’s where it all started. I remember managing my own [destiny] – how am I going to stand out?’
And that is the genius of Gervais: original thought. While becoming a favourite on The 11 O’Clock Show, Ricky was working on a pilot with Xfm colleague Stephen Merchant for the show that would become The Office. The rest, as they say…
And he explains: ‘Whatever is the biggest thing in the world, the next biggest thing will be the antidote to that. If you have a market where 90 per cent is this, the antidote is going to make up the other 10 per cent. The 90 per cent might be 20 things doing it, but that antidote is one thing. It’s the single biggest thing. And that’s the same with any cult.
‘The biggest thing in Britain at any one time – a band or a comedian – is often biggest because they’ve pandered to everyone in Britain. But they don’t sell a ticket outside the UK. Whereas a cult in Britain – and a cult in every other country – is 10 times bigger than the biggest thing in Britain, because there are 7 billion people in the world. If you do something that is slightly different, everyone in every country is going to go: “I haven’t seen anything like that before.” A world cult is bigger than the biggest thing in any country.’
Fame followed, and he adds: ‘You don’t experience world fame because you’re not there. You get reports that The Office is the biggest thing in Chile. Most people rate fame and success as how big they are on their doorstep, because that’s the thing they see. If you step out and see your face on a bus and your friends and family think you’re famous, then you’re the biggest thing in the world, whereas actually that’s not true.’
Ricky became one of the biggest things in the world in 2004 when The Office won two Golden Globes. Within days, Christopher Guest – one of his comedy heroes – reached out, as did Matt Groening (who asked him to appear in The Simpsons) and JJ Abrams (who asked him to appear in Alias), while David Letterman (‘Instrumental in breaking me in America’) was another champion. ‘Mental,’ Ricky marvels. ‘Absolutely mental.’
He continues: ‘I kept it at arm’s length, because I always thought that you have a pile of goodwill, which you can use up in the first weekend or spread out over 20 years.’
END OF BRENT?
I’ve been fortunate enough to meet Ricky a couple of times, and his charisma, energy and likeability are striking. However, he has sent Balance into quite the emotional tailspin. It seems we might have seen the last of Office hero David Brent, despite the movie David Brent: Life on the Road hinting at more.
But Ricky says: ‘I don’t know. I think I’d be pushing my luck. It was nice to revisit him. But I don’t want it to look like it’s been a long time (with the character). When you add it up, there’s about 12 hours of Brent in total. That’s about half a series of the American version!
‘But the main thing is, it would get too sad. Because it’s so real, it would be too tragic: a 60-year-old man wanting to be a pop star and failing. I want to leave him with people thinking he’s all right now.’
Our time, regrettably, is almost over. But before we go our separate ways, he leaves us with this gem: ‘All the things that I know now, all the things I’ve learned, even the things that seem like revelations, I feel like I sort of knew them already.
‘You don’t have to learn that if you’re nice to people, they’re nice back. You don’t have to learn about hard work.
‘But when you’re proved right again, you know deep down that it’s right. All the things that are clichés are true. Love and being kind are the most important things. When it comes down to it, they’re all that matters.
‘We are machines and so without these good feelings and being kind, we are nothing. We are plants.’